Duke Energy's Cliffside Steam Station, located in Rutherford County, is pictured here in an archive photo from 2011. Image courtesy of Duke Energy.

SPINDALE — “My dad worked for Duke for 43 years,” said Eddie Jolley, one of 18 residents to address a N.C. Department of Environmental Quality public hearing on coal ash at Isothermal Community College, attended by more than 50 people Monday night.

As Jolley spoke, he was surrounded by others from southeastern Rutherford County, where Duke operated its coal-fired Cliffside Steam Station for many years. Now with the original four units offline since 2011 and officially called the Rogers Energy Complex, the fate of 146 acres of storage ponds for leftover coal ash is being decided. The same thing is being played out at Duke’s sites across the state.

Duke has been excavating the old unlined ponds in Rutherford County and moving the ash into a lined facility nearby on Duke’s property. In theory the unlined ponds are more prone to leaking into groundwater. The state has mandated that Duke will have to clean up coal ash at Cliffside and multiple other sites, including Lake Julian in Asheville.

But Jolley and others were displeased that DEQ has labeled the Rutherford County project “low risk,” which will give the company up to 14 additional years to move all the coal ash into lined storage or recycle it. Most speakers Monday said the site should be at least intermediate, if not high risk.

Jolley said the well at the home where he grew up, practically raised by Duke Energy, is now unfit to drink. That’s actually one of several facts that’s up for debate.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services sent out “do not drink” letters to residents with wells near coal-ash facilities last year if their water tested high for heavy metals that can come from coal ash.

But the state reversed course last week. At issue in part is the lack of any clear standard for acceptable levels of some contaminants, such as hexavalent chromium, a known cancer-causing agent. Duke doesn’t accept fault for the elevated levels of contaminants, which can occur naturally, but has so far provided those residents with bottled water, as it would be required to do under state law if the company was found responsible.

“These people are simple country people,” Jolley said, noting that although he now lives a short distance away in Forest City, he’s still one of them. “They are my friends. And they’re (having to drink) bottled water. Is that right?

“My dad was proud to work for Duke… I think if he was here right now and couldn’t drink his water, he would” not be proud of the company any longer.

Two years ago, Duke Energy pleaded guilty in federal court to having committed crimes in its mishandling of coal ash that contaminated North Carolina water. After a massive spill on the Dan River, North Carolina lawmakers passed measures to force Duke to clean up.

Plant manager Dave Barnhart addressed Monday’s hearing with assurances that Duke wouldn’t make Cliffside a low priority just because the state wants to rate it as low risk.

Duke has a “proud history of being a good neighbor,” Barnhart claimed.

But other speakers expressed doubts about Duke’s trustworthiness and the state’s wisdom in evaluating the site as a low risk site that’s allowed additional time for cleanup.

“Duke Energy has a long and dirty track record,” said Bill McCalla, who questioned giving Duke 14 extra years before the company will have to clean up the site as a low risk, rather than a high risk. “Duke Energy may not even be around in 14 years.”

Criteria for risk

The state used three criteria to evaluate a generally low risk for coal ash at Cliffside. These were the unlined coal-ash storage ponds’ impact on surface water, impact on groundwater and structural integrity.

Residents and environmental advocates had problems with how the state evaluated each of these.

The dams retaining the ponds at Cliffside are 120 feet tall and have been rated as needing serious repairs, noted several speakers. But DEQ found that if Duke makes those repairs, then the dams would be low risk.

Hartwell Carson questioned whether DEQ was properly complying with state law when it rated Duke’s dams, not on how they are now but how they one day might be if fixed. He also pointed to surface water impacts on the Broad River, which serves as drinking water for Shelby and communities in South Carolina.

Others questioned whether the dams would hold up well under potential flooding conditions that could spew ash into the drinking supply for thousands of people living downstream.

The criteria used to evaluate the effect on groundwater drew some of the harshest criticism from attendees. Data gaps mean that no one knows for certain whether ash from the ponds is causing elevated heavy metal levels in people’s wells.

Despite an admitted lack of information, the state decided to award a low-risk assessment for groundwater at Cliffside.

Karen Richardson Dunn, a local church minister, noted the similarity of this response and what officials in Flint, Michigan, told the public about the safety of the drinking supply that has become infamous for endangering health.

Imported waste

One unpopular Duke Energy policy managed to unite Rutherford County politicians who don’t often see eye to eye.

County Commission Chairman Bryan King, a Republican, called for an end to Duke’s policy of transporting coal ash from Asheville to Rutherford County, instead of to an out-of-state facility where some of it had been sent.

He said company officials claimed this was necessary because they couldn’t otherwise meet the state’s deadline to clear out ash in Buncombe County. King noted that this excuse rang hollow — the company could just run more trucks more often to out of state and eat the extra cost.

Allison Garren, chair of the Rutherford County Democratic Party, said she completely agreed with King and called for an end to the practice as well. “We hope we can continue to work within both parties to highlight the public health concerns facing our friends and neighbors,” she told CPP in an email Tuesday.

The practice of shipping coal ash into Rutherford County was also condemned two weeks ago by several Buncombe County residents who addressed a similar hearing at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College. They objected to passing on Duke’s problems in the Asheville area to another North Carolina community.

Health fears

The uncertainty of the groundwater situation has promoted frustrations among many residents. No one has provided definitive proof that anyone’s illnesses are caused by Duke Energy coal-ash contaminants. No one has disproved that possibility either.

Ted White said he owns a cattle farm near the coal ash storage sites. The spring that waters his cabbage flows from that direction. He received a letter from DEQ a year ago telling him to call a certain number for information about living near the site. But he said he’s tried to call 50 times or more with questions; no one ever offers him any answers about whether the water is safe.

Two local physicians called for Duke and DEQ to gather more data on contamination and the threat to public health and submit those to the public.

Donna Turner teared up as she told the public hearing about her well located 30 feet from a coal-ash site. “Nothing will grow,” she said of the property. She described with her health that she associates with toxins in the water.

Afterward she talked with Carolina Public Press and described unexplained issues with her skin and damage to her teeth. She said her pet died a short time after moving there.

“They got money,” Turner told the hearing. “Why don’t they do something?”

“They don’t care,” she concluded.

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Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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